A couple of nights ago, I saw the musical Cats for the first time. That may seem rather late, given how long it’s been around, and given that my wife even had a nickname among some of her skater friends based on it. But so it goes.
I had heard of it before, of course, and knew one or two songs from it, and had also heard the term Jellicle cats. But I wasn’t sure what that meant, really. Jellicle? Was it a concocted epithet, as in “Oh, those pumpsical, scoochilated, nonce-tockling, jellicle cats!” Was it a place in London, perhaps somewhere on the road from Pimlico to Catford? There are streets named Jellicoe in Tottenham, Plaistow, and Shoreditch. There’s also a famous English playwright named Ann Jellicoe, but she came after T.S. Eliot, whose responsibility this word is. Is it from something like jelly-coated, whatever that might be? Or is it an aphetic form of angelical?
With that last one we are, it turns out, at least moving in the right direction. Although the etymology of the word is not given in Cats, or just about anywhere else, it comes from a poem by Eliot called “Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats,” and Pollicle is a pet form of poor little, and Jellicle is a pet form of dear little.
That might seem like an undue stretch, but ickle has long been a baby-talk version of little in England (readers of the Harry Potter series may recall Harry being called “ickle Harry” by tormentors – it did not mean ‘icky’; it was just infantilizing him). And if you take a southern English pronunciation of dear – especially one of the more moneyed kind – it’s not so much of a leap from dear little to jellicle after all.
In Cats, a Jellicle cat is just… one of those weird cats in the play. An in-group. But originally a Jellicle cat was, as described in Eliot’s “Song of the Jellicles,” a small, black-and-white, nocturnally active cat:
Jellicle Cats are white and black,
Jellicle Cats are of moderate size;
Jellicle Cats jump like a jumping-jack,
Jellicle Cats have moonlit eyes.
They’re quiet enough in the morning hours,
They’re quiet enough in the afternoon,
Reserving their terpsichorean powers
To dance by the light of the Jellicle Moon.
That poem was published 80 years ago. The musical Cats premiered almost 39 years ago. The movie version is opening right about… (looks at watch) …nowish. And, yes, I first saw the stage play just two days ago. But while I have not been long acquainted with Cats, I have been long acquainted with cats; I grew up with several of them, which was possible in spite of my allergies because we lived in the country and could keep them outdoors much of the time (also I took medication and still had asthma from the allergies). I may not have one now (aside from a little stuffed one), but in a way, I married one. In some ways, I am one. And about 30 years ago, at exactly this time of the year, I wrote a poem about one – a cat belonging to a friend:
Cassandra the Cat
Cassandra the cat sits smugly, placidly purring;
outside, a violent winter storm is brewing.
Cassandra wants none of that: she’ll stay by the fire
and enjoy guests who give the odd drop of eggnog to her.
Cassandra goes vaulting off the top of the couch,
scampering under the chair of a startled guest,
and, after a whirlwind tour of the house,
comes back to the fire and quickly returns to rest.
Cassandra is master of all that she surveys;
that small plate of cakes could be hers, if she wanted,
but no, she won’t bother to get up off her duff—
she’s just finished eating, so she’s not even tempted.
Cassandra, in later evening, covers the heat vents,
and, purring, prowls the hallways and the stairs
searching for hitherto unforeseeable e-vents
and mice and spiders to catch all unawares.
Cassandra the cat, you furry door-mat, you owner of home and hearth,
you never pause to realize your net equivalent dollar worth,
but content you lie by fireside and sit on the laps and lick the cups of specially invited guests,
never believing that you could be freezing in cold and snow with nowhere to go in a darkened alley on a hungry belly, if it weren’t for your magnanimous hosts!
Cassandra the cat twitches her tail, looks up
with one eye, smiles, purrs and returns to her nap.